Ottawa has missed all its emissions targets with no real consequences. Without climate accountability legislation, we won’t be a true global leader.

To become a true global leader, Canada needs a world-class climate law.

Much has been made of the dissonance between how Canada styles itself as a moral leader on the global stage and what it actually does here at home. Nowhere is that more jarring than in the fight against climate change.

To the outside world, it may appear Canada has its climate act together. Dignitaries applauded the Canadian delegation’s role in getting the Paris Agreement over the finish line in 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau marched in student-led climate strikes and rubbed elbows with climate change activist Greta Thunberg. And last fall, the federal Liberals – campaigning on promises to take bold climate action – managed to hold onto enough seats to form a minority government for its second term.

But the numbers that truly matter tell a different story: After five years under a Liberal government, Canada’s emissions trajectory is finally trending downwards, but so slowly that it is impossible to celebrate.

Our biggest test still lies ahead. Despite signing onto international agreements to reduce emissions, from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to the 2015 Paris Agreement, Canada has missed every emissions target it has ever set.

The federal government has committed to cutting emissions by 30 percent over 2005 levels by 2030 and getting Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050. How it plans to deliver on these commitments is still unclear. With the current strategies in place, Canada is set to miss its Harper-era 2030 target by 12 percent (let alone the stronger 2030 target the Liberals have been promising for years). This does not bode well for hitting net-zero in 2050.

Canada has been here before. Political leaders – Conservative and Liberal – have repeatedly committed to tackling climate change but Canada keeps missing its emissions targets. Political promises are easily broken and those in power face no real consequences when this happens. To date, reprimands from watchdogs, climate scientists and environmental groups have had little effect.

Now, scrambling in the wake of the WE charity scandal, the Liberals have a critical opportunity to change the narrative. On September 23, the Governor-General will deliver a new Speech from the Throne and press reset on the federal government’s legislative priorities. This is their last, best chance in this minority Parliament to commit to a climate accountability law for Canada.

Canada needs to move away from flimsy promises and solidify our commitments by placing climate targets in law. Climate accountability legislation has worked in other countries and it can help Canada meet its targets.

Ecojustice and five other environmental organizations outlined in a recent report what this law should look like and how it should work. Inspired by the progress being made in other countries,  A New Canadian Climate Accountability Act outlines five pillars on which Canadian climate legislation should be based. These are:

  • Legislated long-term carbon pollution targets for 2030 and 2050.
  • Legislated five-year national and sub-national carbon budgets, which ensure steady progress toward the long-term targets and share the responsibility of emission-reduction across all sectors of the economy and all Canadian provinces and territories, following through with the commitment to exceed current 2030 targets and develop a plan to achieve a net-zero emissions economy by 2050.
  • Five-year impact reports that set out the risks that climate change poses to Canadians.
  • A requirement that the government prepare detailed plans showing how it will meet the targets and adapt to climate change, and annual reports on its progress.
  • An arm’s-length expert committee comprised of climate change experts tasked with advising government on climate policy and keeping the public informed on the government’s progress.

A just recovery for all Canadians

As the country reels from the impacts of COVID-19, economic recovery is top of mind for many people living in Canada. The Department of Finance projects this year’s federal deficit will hit $343 billion.

But Canadians don’t just want to return to normal, they are demanding a future that is better than normal – a green and just recovery. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed some of the deep inequalities and contradictions at the heart of the Canadian political system and our battle to reduce emissions. Without a systemic change in our laws and governance, we will not meet our emissions targets and protect those most vulnerable to the threat of a rapidly changing climate.

Polling shows that 73 percent of Canadians want a broad transformation of our society instead of a return to the status quo. So why do federal and provincial governments continue to provide the fossil fuel industry with $16 billion in aid, even in the midst of a pandemic? Canadians have been subsidizing emissions for years – in 2015 each individual Canadian paid approximately $1,650 to prop up fossil fuel companies. Now, people are asking for change. And the responsibility for meeting that demand lies on the shoulders of politicians.

The federal government has suggested sustainability and equity will be at the heart of Canada’s recovery efforts, but it needs to quickly move from words to action.

Strong laws are key to making a just recovery a reality. That is why a climate accountability law is such a critical legislative step in this time of disruption and change. In the framework Ecojustice and its partners propose, several government departments would share responsibility for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Under this proposal, the federal government would integrate climate accountability into financial decision-making by requiring federal spending to support emissions reduction.

Canada simply cannot deliver a just economic recovery while simultaneously propping up emissions-heavy industries. An accountable legislative framework would root out these inconsistencies and push through the systemic change that’s actually required.

Communities at risk from climate change

Canada has a long history of colonization and environmental racism, which, in recent months, has come under increased focus. Political leaders, institutions and even private corporations have pledged to do more to challenge their understanding of racism and its impacts on racialized communities.

This must also extend to our understanding of the injustices inflicted by climate change. Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) produce little of the emissions that result in Canada missing its international commitments but are often hit first and hardest by the impacts of climate change. Exposure to a rapidly changing climate in Canada’s North puts Indigenous communities at risk from thawing permafrost, sea level rises and storm surges. Heatwaves like those Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal have experienced this summer are deadly to people who don’t have air conditioning and access to cool, green spaces.

A new climate accountability law can help address some of these inequalities – not only by reducing our emissions but also by amplifying the voices of communities too often left out of policy decisions. In the climate law we have proposed, Indigenous people and their knowledge holders would sit on the expert committee that guides the federal government on how to reduce emissions while also holding it to account for results.

Resilience across Canada

And that social solidarity must extend across the country. After months of uncertainty, worry and fear about the global pandemic and its social and economic fallout, Canada needs to build resilience in the face of future threats. We are still battling COVID-19 but the threats posed by climate change have not diminished and are not going away. The things that make our planet livable – air, land, water and biodiversity – are still under a serious threat from a changing climate.

Wildfire season is now underway in BC, and the BC Centre for Disease Control has issued a warning about its associated risks on respiratory issues and those most at risk from COVID-19. Floods are wreaking havoc on susceptible communities, and without mitigation, the cost of floods could cost Canadians $8.3 billion by 2030.

The solution to these systemic problems requires swift and decisive action from decision-makers on Parliament Hill, and that must include introducing a climate law that keeps Canadians safe over the long-term.

Climate accountability – better than normal

COVID-19 did not rid the world of GHG emissions. Despite a brief lull, emissions have made a quick rebound and pose the same threat to our climate as they did before the pandemic hit. The challenge remains the same, and our political leaders have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ground Canada’s path to a cleaner future in the rule of law.

Now is the time for political leadership in Ottawa to listen to the voices of Canadians and be better than normal. A better Canada will require a federal government that ends the cycle of broken climate promises, takes real action, and passes a world-class climate accountability law. When the Speech from the Throne is delivered to Parliament on September 23, Canadians will see how committed the federal government truly is to a safer, more just and sustainable future.

Photo: Smoke from a wildfire drifts into Calgary, Alberta. Shutterstock.com, by Darko-HD Photography